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Artist Job Description, Career as an Artist, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Varies—see profile

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Art occupations are usually divided into two categories: fine art and applied art. Although the nature and aesthetic value of what any artist produces may be the subject of debate, an artist is someone who creates art. A fine artist creates paintings, sculptures, prints, or other artwork that is meant to be visually pleasing, provocative, or in the case of a medical illustrator, instructive to the viewer. An applied artist designs and makes things that serve a practical purpose, such as ceramics and pottery, rugs, jewelry, or furniture.

Sculptors, painters, and printmakers are considered fine artists. They may work with many different materials or specialize in one. The material that an artist uses is called the medium. A painter may work with watercolors, oils, acrylics, tempera, or pastels. A sculptor often carves stone or wood, models clay, or works with plaster, metals, or plastics. A printmaker makes woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, serigraphs, or combinations of these forms. These designs are transferred onto paper when the artist runs them through a press or screens them, in the case of serigraphs. A printmaker is able to make several copies, called "editions," of a work of art, whereas painters and sculptors usually make one-of-a-kind works. Some artists utilize high-tech equipment to create visual images.

Fine artists try to earn a living through the sale of their work. Unfortunately, very few artists are able to support themselves in that way. As a result, many of them supplement their incomes by teaching in art schools, colleges, universities, or elementary and secondary schools. Similarly, sculptors may design furniture. Painters and printmakers may do freelance illustration work. Fine artists sometimes give private art lessons. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost two-thirds of visual artists are self-employed. The rest have full-time jobs and produce their creative work during their free time.

An artist must enjoy working alone and have the discipline to work without enforced routines. (© Gabe Palmer/zefa/Corbis.)

Education and Training Requirements

Aside from having a natural ability to draw, use color, or sculpt, students need to hone their skills through studio courses to become fine artists. Life and still life drawing, perspective and dimension, color, and especially the use of the different kinds of media are important. In art school, students should take courses in drawing, basic painting, sculpture, and printmaking.

As future artists gain more experience, they begin to develop a style and prefer a particular medium. Someone who wants to paint should work with all types of materials to find out which is preferable. Sculptors and printmakers may wish to branch out and explore available materials. Even though artists often work in one particular medium most of the time, they may possess the artistic ability to diversify. In addition to creativity and drive, capable artists need a great deal of technical skill.

Art history is an essential part of an artist's training, providing a background in various styles of art and in the techniques used by artists of the past. A knowledge of art history also gives an artist standards against which to judge his or her own work.

Not all fine artists have a formal art education. However, art courses are useful because they provide students with an opportunity to work in a variety of media as they develop basic skills. A master's degree in fine arts is important for those who plan to support themselves by teaching or working in museums, but the most important quality an artist can have is talent. Exposure to a formal curriculum will enhance natural talent, but art education cannot supply talent where none exists.

Getting the Job

Prospective artists need to develop a portfolio of their best work—and then they need to sell it. Most artwork is sold through art galleries and dealers. The best-known galleries in the United States are located in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Artists compete to have their work shown in those galleries, but many fine artists also sell their work through local galleries across the country.

Art galleries, like artists themselves, tend to specialize in certain styles or media. Beginning artists need to find a gallery suitable for their work and contact the dealer directly. If the dealer is interested, candidates will be asked to send samples of their work or bring in a portfolio. Art dealers also look for recommendations from recognized artists or teachers, so it is useful to have a resume containing information about training, teachers, and the dates and locations of previous shows.

Art dealers do not ordinarily buy an artist's work unless the artist is well established. Instead, dealers agree to show the artwork in their galleries. If the work is sold, the dealer receives a portion of the selling price, usually one-third of it, although the dealer's cut can be as low as 25 percent or as high as 50 percent.

Artists can also show their work at art centers, fairs, department stores, libraries, and shopping malls. They may need a certificate from a local or state tax office if they sell to the public, and they should check with the Internal Revenue Service for tax rules on sold art.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Professional artists work constantly to perfect their art, learning new techniques and methods of expression. Therefore, to a fine artist, advancement means getting recognition from dealers, art critics, and museums. This process may be very difficult and may take a long time to achieve. Many artists try to have their work exhibited in public places, such as banks and municipal buildings, so that as many people as possible can see it. Basically, artists achieve success by selling their work. To support themselves and continue working at their art until they become recognized, many artists teach, do commercial art, or work in other fields.

There are a number of possibilities for advancement in commercial fields, teaching, and museums. Artists who have concentrated on illustration or graphic design can become art directors for magazines, book publishers, or advertising agencies. Art teachers in colleges and universities can advance from instructor to full professor. Museum jobs offer the possibility of a curatorship and advancement to the position of museum director.

When the economy is slow, it is especially difficult to sell art; however, artists will continue to produce their works whether people buy them or not. Opportunities for artists are expected to grow as fast as the average through 2014. Competition will be intense, but highly talented people will be in demand.

Working Conditions

Artists work alone. Even in a design service, advertising agency, museum, or school, where teamwork and cooperation are important, the creative process remains a solitary one. Once a piece of art is finished, the artist must work with others. For example, artists confer with dealers or curators. Illustrators must get together with writers. Graphic designers must work with art directors and often with production people. Artists who sell their own work deal directly with the public.

The art world can be very competitive, and the pressure may take its toll on the artist. A successful artist learns to cope with frustration and slack periods. There is little routine in this profession, so self-discipline is very important.

Earnings and Benefits

The market for fine arts is limited and unpredictable and depends on many different factors. A well-known artist can command high prices for work, but an unknown artist cannot. Certain styles of art sell better one year than the next. Again, it is a rare artist who can live solely on the sale of art. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income of salaried fine artists, including painters, sculptors, and illustrators, was $38,060 in 2004. Free-lancers can make far more or far less than this median. Since artists are usually self-employed, they do not receive fringe benefits such as paid holidays, sick leave, health insurance, or pensions.

Where to Go for More Information

Allied Artists of America
15 Gramercy Park S
New York, NY 10003
(212) 582-6411

National Association of Artists Organizations
2822 Lyndale Ave. S
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Art teachers earn a wide range of salaries depending on their qualifications and where they teach. An assistant professor in the field earns about $45,000 per year or more.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts